It's been four months since the U.S. House of Representatives again approved a bipartisan bill to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses—but companion legislation has stalled in the Senate, and the House sponsor is getting impatient.
While Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) says he appreciates that Senate leadership is pushing for a more comprehensive end to federal marijuana prohibition, and he agrees that promoting social equity is an important objective, he feels the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is urgently needed to address public safety issues resulting from the industry's lack of access to traditional financial institutions.
What's more, the banking bill stands a significantly higher chance of passing in the Senate specifically because of its narrow focus. To that end, Perlmutter argues that an incremental approach to reform is better than nothing, and the SAFE Banking Act should get a Senate vote without further delay.
In an interview with Westword that was published on Friday, the congressman was asked to defend that incrementalism. He said simply that he believes "it's important to pass the SAFE Banking Act as quickly as possible to address the public-safety risk that comes with these businesses being forced to operate cash-only."
"Passing the SAFE Banking Act is the first step of many federal cannabis reforms to create a safer and more equitable industry," he said.
It's not that pro-legalization lawmakers and advocates oppose the banking legislation. Some of the strongest proponents for broad reform like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act in April despite the body yet having taken up a legalization measure this session. But on the Senate side, there are some concerns among leadership that passing the SAFE Banking Act first would mean jeopardizing comprehensive reform.
And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) really wants his legalization bill—the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA)—to pass. He, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently accepting public comment on the draft legislation, and Schumer has said he intends to bring it to the floor "soon."
Booker, for his part, said last month that he "will lay myself down" to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation before the body approves comprehensive cannabis reform.
Of course, federally descheduling marijuana would inherently resolve the industry's banking issues. The problem is, it's not clear that there's enough support for the measure even within the slim Democratic majority of the Senate. Some member of Schumer's own party have also signaled they may oppose it.
Still, many advocates are committed to bringing legalization to a vote, and as the conversation around reform has shifted toward repairing the harms of prohibition, they feel passing a banking bill that doesn't contain social equity provisions and is viewed as principally favorable to business interests is the wrong approach.
Perlmutter was asked by Westword in the new interview about the prospects of attaching equity components to his bill, and he said lawmakers "have intentionally kept the SAFE Banking Act narrowly focused, given the jurisdiction of the House Financial Services Committee."
"I believe that has also helped garner more bipartisan support in the House, as we've seen with the overwhelming vote margins for the bill, and would help achieve sufficient support in the Senate, as well, if it were brought up for a vote," he said.
Another complication for cannabis financial services reform in the Senate is that Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has expressed little interest in fast-tracking the SAFE Banking Act and said the proposal hasn't won his support just yet "because I think we need to look at a number of things."
"This committee's been too much about Wall Street and not enough about housing, not enough about rural and urban affairs and people's everyday economic lives, and that's my focus," Brown said. "I will look at this seriously. We're not ready to move on it."
Perlmutter doesn't necessarily view the SAFE Banking Act as being about Wall Street or big business. He stressed in the new interview that it's "not about making corporations richer; it's about protecting employees, patients and customers of small businesses."
"The SAFE Banking Act also immediately removes barriers for small and minority-owned cannabis businesses to access capital," he said. "Passing the SAFE Banking Act is the first step of many federal cannabis reforms to create a safer and more equitable industry."